In the year 1240, the Ghana Empire was integrated into the Mali Empire which ended its decline. It was originally known as Wagadou with Ghana being the title of its ruler. Bearing no geographic connection to the modern West African country of Ghana (formerly called Gold Coast), the Ghana Empire was situated in the western Sudan region, present-day Mauritania and Mali; crammed between the north and south of the Empire are the Sahara and the rainforests respectively.
Due to the abundance of minerals like gold, iron, copper, et cetera, and easy access to the Niger and Senegal Rivers, trade blossomed. As a result, the kings of the Ghana Empire who resided at the capital Koumbi Saleh eventually grew fat and rich and Ghana came to be known, across North Africa and Europe, as a great land of gold.
So, what really led to the fall of the wealthy Ghana Empire in the 13th century?
Formation of the Ghana Empire
When exactly the Ghana Empire was formed is not exactly known, but could be as early as c.500 A.D. However, the Empire, mostly composed of the Soninke people reached its height around 900 to the 1070s.
Koumbi Saleh was the capital of the Ghana Empire now located some 322 kilometres (200 miles) north of present-day Bamako, the capital of Mali. Archaeological records show that the city was spread over an area of 45 hectares with a population of more than 50,000 people. The Archaeological sites have also shown the presence of a significant mosque, a large public square, and housings of one storey made with mud-dried bricks, pounded earth and wood or stone.
According to the Andalusian Muslim historian, geographer, and traveller, Muhammad al-Bakri (1040-1094) who visited the Empire in 1076, Koumbi Saleh was well irrigated where many vegetables were grown for consumption.
King and Government
The Ghana king was an absolute ruler. He was also the head of state in matters relating to justice and religion. A certain cult and mysticism were created about the king throughout his life and even in death. The king also had his own advisors, especially at the height of the Empire, and employed Muslim merchants who acted as officials and interpreters. They also helped to manage the Ghanaian economy and kept track of goods there were coming in and out of the empire.
Also, the empire prospered due to its well-trained army which had access to raw materials to make its own weapons and enough gold, silver, and ivory to pay its soldiers. The possession of camels as means of transport through the deserts also established the dominance of the Soninke over other tribes.
Consequently, the Ghana Empire was able to expand by acquiring new territories and new tributes from vassal chiefs which gave them the advantage to monopolise the regional trade.
Several factors led to the decline, which began around the year 1076, and the eventual fall of the Ghana Empire.
Let’s have a look at some of these influences.
As a result of trade with Muslim merchants, the Islamic religion spread throughout the Ghana Empire, among the local traders in the interior and the elite in the metropolis. They thought adopting the religion would, perhaps, be beneficial to trade with the Arab merchants who sought their gold.
Although, there has been no evidence to prove that the kings converted to Islam. However, the capital, Koumbi Saleh, as of the 1070s, boasted 12 mosques. Even the royal palace, with its many traditional occultic shrines, had a mosque for Muslim merchants who visited.
This division would create a crisis and eventual decline between the indigenous animists and the newly converted Islamists during the reign of Tunka Manin.
Tunka Manin was the Ghana (king) of the Wagadou from 1062, when he succeeded Ghana Bassi, until 1078 A.D. By contemporary accounts, Tunka Manin was portrayed as a lover of justice and he personally resolved several disputes within his empire. He was known for his participation in societies and the fact that he significantly improved the empire’s economy. By projecting an aura of mystery and mysticism, the Ghana was able to further develop his public profile.
Tunka Manin commanded numerous warriors during his rule, who had been charged with defending the empire. The empire would finally collapse due to a number of reasons later in his rule. One factor was the political structure and the division between Muslims and non-Muslims in the empire.
Tunka Manin himself was not a Muslim. He had succeeded Bassi in 1062 and like him had refused to convert to the Islamic religion. The missionary Almoravids who wanted to convert other people to their faith, started invading the empire under Abu Bakr ibn Umar.
The Almoravids’ Conquest
Most modern historians have debated this conquest as one that never was. According to Abu al-Bakri, the Almoravids sacked the Ghana Empire around 1076–1077.
The Almoravids were a powerful Sanhaja tribe of the Sahara, the “Lemtouna”, whose place of origin was in the Adar, present-day Mauritania. Their custom was to traverse chiefly the desert regions stretching from the oases of southern Morocco to West Africa. They also wore a veil that covered the lower part of their faces.
These tough nomads were converted to Islam in the 9th century and after fighting under a single leader, they finally split up for more than one hundred years, until the day when the energetic Emir Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad Ibn Tifawat assumed their control.
In 1076, the Almoravids reportedly succeeded in sacking Koumbi Saleh, but Tunka Manin continued to rule as a vassal of the Almoravids and paid tribute to them. The invasion had weakened the empire which led former territories ruled by it to declare independence. Also, Islam which had become the dominant faith of the elites was being imposed on all subjects and many animists had to migrated to other areas away from the empire.
Although, it regained some prestige after the fall of the Almoravids in 1087, the Ghana Empire eventually fell at the turn of the 12th century as a result of drought, civil wars, and the opening up of trade routes elsewhere.
The subsequent rise of the Sosso Kingdom (c.1180-1235) and later the Mali Empire (1240-1645 CE) led by Sundiata Keita also contributed to its fall. Sundiata Keita accumulated all the vestiges of the Ghana Empire including its capital and would go on to found the largest and richest empire yet seen in Africa.
In 1957, when the Gold Coast gained its independence from the British colonial rule, the new Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah renamed the country Ghana, in honour of the extinct empire.
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